Many times in my life, i have been like the crowds Jesus encounters in today’s gospel. Like a sheep without a shepherd. I have gone my own way, seeking excitement or acceptance or control, not knowing I had turned from the right path. I have been lonely and sought comfort in food, or things, or shallow affection. I have been lost, looking around for someone to follow. Or I have gone off in the lead, confident I knew my way, other sheep bleating behind me, later to find that my chosen destination held none of its early promise. On and off again, I have lived like a sheep without a shepherd – confused, ignorant, lost, in danger. I was lost, but at least right now, I consider myself gratefully found. The Lord is my Shepherd.
I mean no insult when I say that we human beings can be a lot like sheep. Like us, their greatest danger often results from following their natural inclinations. Sheepish lostness expresses itself in several ways. Here are three. First, sheep are consummate consumers. They don’t know when to stop. Given the chance, a professor of animal behavior at Colorado State University writes, sheep will over consume. They’ll keep eating after their nutritional needs are met. Left to stand grazing in a green pasture, they will eat and eat and eat.
Now, I have been known to say to the parish high school youth that we need to speak transparently and avoid confusing innuendo. Seems like a good rule in preaching, as in conversations about expectations on a youth trip! When I say that we people are a lot like sheep, I am relying on personal knowledge – using myself as a test case. But what I know in myself, I have seen in others.
Take the consummate consumer angle, for instance. Somewhere deep inside me is a belief that there is no anxiety or need that can’t be fixed by eating, drinking, having, or buying something. As I was preparing to go to England earlier this summer, I saw it more clearly than ever before. I worried about the trip. When I worried, I would think of some purchase that could take care of a need – the right pants for travel, small bags of m&ms (they might not have them there!), Bibles of just such a size. I could see that I was trying to erase my anxiety through the habit of acquisition. Letting such desire and habit have its way is destructive. To wallet and waistline and spirit and planet. We need a shepherd to protect and correct us.
Second, sheep are picky and particular and care little about their real needs. Left to their own tastes, they will leave food that is best for them in favor of tasty morsels. Sheep will eat what tastes good, even when a more healthy or nutritious option is available.
Like the sheep, we human beings don’t stop at over-consumption. We also pursue the indiscriminate indulgence of our preferences. Don’t tell me what is healthy or good; I know what I like, I know what I want, seems to be the motto of our day. We fill our stomachs with Big Macs, feast our eyes on violence, fill our carts at Total Wine Warehouse and schedule our lives around movie premiers. Of the current top 10 video games, according to Nielson, 7 are first-person shooters in which you score points by killing people. But we should not be too quick to judge those who buy, learn and enjoy video games, unless we are ready to acknowledge our own indulgences of desires for what we want over what is good. My sin may not be that sin, but it is still sin. We need a good shepherd to correct and admonish us, to lead us on right pathways.
Finally, sheep will follow the other sheep, even when they lead toward danger. The herd instinct provides the sheep’s best natural defense against predators. The safest place for an individual herd animal is in the middle of the herd. But when those in the lead head in the wrong direction, all the others follow!
I would be embarrassed to acknowledge the number of times I have followed a crowd to do things that hurt or diminished others, or prioritized activities or named as valuable things which left me and others hungry, unfulfilled, or exposed to harm.
Sheep need shepherds. To lead them to the right food, in the right amounts. To use greater knowledge and wisdom to lead to safety. Good shepherds feed and lead. They protect and correct. They comfort and admonish the sheep. Shepherds, you see, provide the discipline and direction sheep naturally lack. Under the care of a good shepherd, the sheep thrive.
Jesus looked out at the crowds. He had compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd. He began to teach them. To tell them what was good and what would destroy and kill them. To open for them a vision of God’s kingdom. And when he was done teaching, he healed the sick, comforted the lonely, and set the lost on the right path.
Many times, I have been in that lost crowd. Perhaps you have, too. The compassionate one still looks with compassion. He came so that we, the sheep, might pass through the valley of death and enter the land of light and life. He is with us, rod and staff in hand. Ready to feed and lead, protect and correct, comfort and admonish. There’s no need to be lost anymore.
Text: Psalm 23 and Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56
Sermon proper 11B
The Rev. Kathryn M. Ryan
July 22, 2012